Beyond Raheel Sharif


Required changes & institutional response


Everybody is talking about Raheel Sharif and the challenges that are likely to be faced by the new COAS. We’ve been talking about Gen Sharif’s achievements too. But a realistic appraisal can’t be made unless we discuss both positives and negatives of his tenure.

Needless to say, Raheel Sharif handled the military side exceptionally. Hence the substantial decrease in religious terrorism emanating from the other side of the Indus and in Karachi’s political violence.

But two facts must be recognised: that Operation Zarb-e-Azb was a manifestation of the change that had started taking place inside the army as an institution regarding the internal threat during Gen Kayani’s time, with some objectives left; and, that the Karachi operation’s political side was not handled with efficiency corresponding to what was shown on ground, and that corruption charges included for political considerations compromised its impartiality and effectiveness.

At this stage, it is difficult to predict exactly what Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa would like to include and prioritise in the next three years’ overall policies. But no individual can bring revolution into the existing policies of institutions as strong and organised as Pakistan Army particularly if its continuation is perceived to be vital for existence and they are projected as successful.

So, let’s move beyond the circulating list of ‘challenges’ (terrorism, Indian threat, Karachi operation, relations with Afghanistan and USA, the ever-present phenomenon of civil-military relations, etc). And, to see what those core issues are which mar relations between the civilians and military on the one hand and the business of the state on the other.

The real problem lies with the upper hand that the military enjoys in the core issues of the state – the proverbial imbalance, resulting in tension. Military’s exaggerated say in foreign policy matters – USA, India, Afghanistan – is not the problem. It’s a manifestation of the greater problem of the military’s dominance in the political sphere due to our historical experience. Maintaining it gave birth to two abnormal phenomena; a) perception in both the military and the civilians that they’re not one and their interests aren’t necessarily the mutual, and b) the military’s national interests narrative (based on its threat-perception) becoming the state narrative.

If seen in this larger, theoretical context, everything else that ails the system and weakens the state appears to be mere extensions.

The differentiation of ‘us’ and ‘them’ has not only led the two to pursue policies that are sometime at variance, but also to both taking each other’s actions as prejudicial to their own (institutional) interests. And that is internally killing the state.

If anyone’s interested – and has the will and power – to change things for better, it’s this basic anomaly that has to be removed. Currently, it’s obviously Pakistan’s COAS Staff on whose shoulders this gigantic responsibility rests.

Why though, and how?

‘Why’ is relatively simple to answer: he is more powerful vis-a-vis the civilian leadership; it is the army which mostly pulls the strings from to perpetuate the ongoing arrangement; and the army chief has the capacity, means and the resources for it.

The second question is real question – which most fail to answer, because the root cause is difficult to identify or even to say in so many words.

Pakistan was created in the name of Islam but Quaid-e-Azam tried to de-emphasise its role in state affairs. His sudden death resulted in a failure of those efforts, leaving his successors with nothing to rule with except Islam, resulting in the introduction of the Objectives Resolution and religion’s part in politics. 

Meanwhile the army not only tasted power but also developed stakes in the country’s decision-making process, remaining involved in its political affairs. Now, after 32 years of direct and as many years of indirect rule, it has not only become a habit of the military to be a dictating member in the state’s power structure but it’s also an integral part of its institutional psyche that they are the only true guardians of the state’s interests which can’t be left to the inefficient, unscrupulous and self-serving politicians. And they seriously think that if they left these creatures to their own devices, they will sell this country for peanuts and run to some offshore heaven.

But there is no mechanism in the system to accommodate them or give them a formal role; dislodging an elected government leaves them bereft of political legitimacy and makes it unacceptable internationally.

So, they have no other option but to dictate to the civilian governments while remaining on the sidelines. But this can be possible when they will have something more powerful than democracy. And that can only be religion in a society like ours. We cannot go into details, due to space restrictions but whether it’s terrorism, extremism, sectarianism, bad relations with other countries, weak democracy or our failure to establish a social welfare instead of a security state, it is our current religious based nationalistic narrative which is at the heart of it all. The military has also developed stakes in this state of affairs.

The biggest challenge that the new COAS is faced with is helping to change this. The general impression – that this can be done by the civilian side – is rubbish and that’s why nothing can be seen on this front despite our great military operations against terrorism.

The prevailing narrative – which existing right-wing rulers and the military establishment consider beneficial to their interests – is sheer shortsightedness fueling extremism in society. From hospital, mosque and funeral attacks, extremism climaxed with the unthinkable atrocities at Parade Lane Mosque, GHQ and APS.

Now, it enters the questioning the religious credentials of the new army chief. This is the real challenge for Gen Bajwa: Not terrorism, but simply religious extremism – the state-sponsored narrative’s offshoot.